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Get back: Paws for thought on an outdoor adventure

A monthly series following Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley as they reconnect with the simple things in life.

Rob Cowen,Leo Critchley
Friday 17 February 2012 12:30 GMT

Your instinct may tell you that the weather is a reason to stay in, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Spend some time close to the muddy and snowy ground and you can discover a hidden world. Animal tracking is all about familiarising yourself with patterns left by wildlife, a skill that deepens our connection to the landscape and its wildlife.

A few centimetres of fresh snowfall provide an ideal canvas. If you are up early enough, a flurry even in the city gives an easy-to-follow record. In rural areas, head for the intersections between habitats: the field and forest, the forest and stream, the stream and field. If there is no snow, muddy areas also retain clear impressions.

Look for prints around walls, hedges, gateposts and at the edges of woods. Investigate any "runs", paths cut by regular animal use, leading to and from feeding and breeding grounds. Telltale signs are flattened grass, holes pushed through thicker vegetation and clumps of hair trapped in fence wire.

Record any print you find so you can identify it properly at home. Photograph it alongside something that adds scale, such as a coin or, in mud or sand, try casting a print with plaster of Paris. Encircle the track with a ring of stiff card pressed a few millimetres into the ground. Shake plaster of Paris into a jam jar half-filled with cold water. Keep stirring until it resembles pancake batter, then pour into the card circle until the track is covered. After 20 minutes it can be lifted.

We found fresh prints running along in a muddy furrow in a Welsh wood, not far from Carmarthen. At first we took them to be those of a dog, but they were too long and slender. There was also an undoglike separation between the front two pads and the two outer pairs.

Tracing the prints through the vegetation meant lowering ourselves to the ground. At this point, we realised, as Ted Hughes did, that "delicately as the dark snow, a fox's nose touches twig, leaf". There was no mistaking the musky, sour scent of this bushy-tailed omnivore.

To be in a wood as night approaches is a strange sensation. Instinct tells us it is unsafe, but it is exciting too. Wood pigeons returned to roost, and tree-creepers fizzed up the young birch in corkscrews. Suddenly, a crash of undergrowth nearby; rabbits, disturbed while making their way to the fields for their evening feed, were bolting into holly bushes. On the path below us stood the fox, frozen in the moonlight.

We've probably all seen urban foxes ravaging a black bin bag in the wee hours, but this creature seemed utterly different: as a wolf is to a dog. It was a thick-maned wild animal and we were trespassers in its kingdom. After a minute sniffing the air, it melted back into the black.

From childhood, we are encouraged to appreciate nature in the majestic and grand sense, but it is important to take in the small scale too. Tracking prints satisfies something ancient in our hunter-gatherer DNA. We walked, unspeaking, back to the cottage where we were staying, both wondering where the fox's footsteps were being left now. The mournful vibrato calls of tawny owls rang out, the frost a crystal sheen over the grass.

Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley appear on The Culture Show tonight at 6pm on BBC2. Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild (Hodder/Coronet) is available now. See their blog at

Track down some wildlife

Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire

The largest abbey ruins in the country, and the adjoining grounds of Studley Royal, form an 800-acre estate and deer park where you can easily cast red, fallow and even roe deer prints. The varied woodland and river terrain that surrounds it is also home to a complete cross-section of British wildlife.

Ashdown Forest, Sussex

Originally a medieval hunting ground, this thick wood supports a diverse animal population including deer, mice, foxes, rabbits, squirrels and (some claim) wild boar. If you see a five-toed, bear-like print it could either be a badger or Ashdown's most reclusive resident, Winnie the Pooh.

Bradgate Park, Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire

A printer's paradise, best known for its herd of fallow and red deer, but also likely to be thick with the trails of shrews, mice, foxes, stoats, weasels and badgers.

River Tamar, Cornwall

Otters often leave webbed tracks along the banks of this wonderful river as they busily fish for salmon and trout. The woods and fields fringing it are also fantastic hot spots for everything from foxes to weasels.

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